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The Coin Analyst Talks to Chiara Principe, Italian Medallic Artist and Sculptor

By Louis Golino for CoinWeek …..
Italian artist Chiara Principe has been designing and sculpting coins and medals for over a decade and has extensive training as an artist and sculptor using traditional and modern methods. Best known for her work on Vatican commemorative coins, she has received international recognition for her many accomplishments.

In November 2019, she was one of a select group of coin designers invited to address the first annual Shanghai Coin Design Forum organized by the Chinese Mint. During that gathering, she spoke about the large challenge coin designers face in choosing just the right motifs to express their ideas and values on a very small space.

Artistic Background

After graduating from an art-focused high school in Rome, she studied at the renowned School of the Art of Medal Making, which is located within the Italian Mint in the eternal city of Rome. This specialized postgraduate school was founded in 1907 to train artists in all the artistic and technological aspects related to designing and sculpting numismatic works and is the only such facility in the world. Many famous Italian artists have taught at the school.

While studying there from 2006 to 2009, Chiara took courses in everything from art history to numismatic technology, drawing, three-dimensional design, computer-assisted modeling, bas relief modeling, high relief, and three-dimensional casting and molding and others.

After completing her studies, she won a two-year scholarship that enabled her to gain experience as a designer, sculptor, and engraver at the Italian Mint – known by the Italian acronym IZPS, which translates as the Italian National Mint and Printing Institute.

Chiara has designed coins and medals for several state and private mints over the past decade. Her work for non-state mints includes, among others, the 2019 $20 Palau three-ounce, high relief silver coin called Pandora’s Box: The Evil Within, which she designed for Italian coin dealer Powercoin. The coin is an impressive piece of modern numismatic art that features various grotesque motifs such as skulls, snakes, and masks in a swirling pattern.

She is also a graphic artist and has designed stamps for the Vatican and San Marino. Before working on coins, Chiara worked as a sculptor and molder with various commissions to produce bronze plaques, statues and other works, including a Unity Cross of which 40,000 were made, including one presented to Pope Francis in 2014.

She began working at the Vatican State’s Philatelic and Numismatic Office known by its Italian acronym UFN in 2012 and has designed and sculpted many coins and medals issued by the Vatican since then. In 2019 she also began doing the same type of work for the “other UFN”, the similar entity in the Republic of San Marino.

Both countries are micro-states located within the borders of the Italian Republic, and both have a long history of issuing their own coins and medals that are struck by the Italian Mint, although more recently San Marino has had its coins minted by the Austrian Mint in Vienna. Work at both mints had to be suspended in March due to the coronavirus. Italy has been harder hit than any other European country by the virus, reportedly because it has the oldest population on the continent.

New Pieta Coin

This year both countries launched their first coins sold at their face values, making them accessible to buyers of all means. In the case of the Vatican this was a beautiful 10-euro coin that depicts the legendary marble sculpture of Michelangelo known as the Pieta (The Pity) on its obverse that resides in the Vatican and depicts Mary, the mother of Jesus, cradling her dead son and contemplating his death.

The reverse features the official crest of Pope Francis, which has appeared on Vatican coins since 2017 when the Pope indicated that he no longer wished to see his likeness depicted.

Chiara Principe Speaking in Shanghai.
Chiara Principe Speaking in Shanghai.

The new piece, which is 32 millimeters in diameter and made of 15 grams of copper, is the first of a series called Art and Faith. It was released March 5, and 43,000 BU examples were struck. Designed and sculpted by Chiara Principe, the piece was engraved by Claudia Momoni. It is arguably Chiara’s most high-profile work to date and has received considerable press coverage in Italy.

A Proof version also in copper with a mintage of 4,500 coins is coming in October.

Mauro Olivieri, who runs the UFN, noted of the longstanding connection between art and religious faith, which was especially prevalent in the works on Renaissance geniuses like Raphael and Michelangelo:

“The combination of art and faith has always characterized art and distinguishes countless masterpieces kept in Vatican City, some of which will be the subject of this new cycle of numismatic emissions.

“Through art, the popes over the centuries have communicated and accomplished their spiritual mission. It was John Paul II who noted that art, ‘even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience.’ (Letter of Pope John Paul II to Artists, 1999).

“We inaugurate this new cycle with a sculpted work of undisputed and extraordinary beauty, the Pietà, created by 24-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti between 1498-1499. The work was commissioned by French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères, ambassador of Charles VIII to the court of Pope Alexander VI, and destined to the Chapel of Saint Petronilla where it would probably have been the cardinal’s funerary monument.

“Here art and faith fully unite reaching an expressive and emotional force of rare intensity, without affecting in any way the delicacy and gentleness of the composition which remains one of the most admired sculptural works ever.”

Interview with the Artist

(translated from Italian by the author)

Chiara explained that this was her first Vatican coin for 2020 and that she is especially proud to see her initials on the first Vatican coin that will be sold to the public at its face value (10 euros). Of the bas relief and plaster models of the Pieta she made while working on the coin, she noted: “Preparing the bas relief modelling of an excellent work like the famous Vatican Pietà was challenging and exciting at the same time. It’s really hard to convey the idea of all the work that hides behind 32 millimeters of coin.”

Louis Golino – Why did you decide to become an artist and a coin designer?

Chiara Principe – This is a question I am often asked, but the truth is I never really decided! Art is a talent and passion that is always part of you. The only thing you can decide is to figure out how to make it blossom. Thus, I decided not to repress this little talent I received as a gift simply because doing anything else would not have made me happy!

Chiara Principe adds detail to a 10 Euro commemorative coin plaster

From the time I was a child I knew I wanted to be an artist, but for sure I never thought of becoming a coin designer! Looking at the facts, I could say this happened by chance, but since I don’t believe in chance, I think it was simply my destiny.

After graduating from a high school in Rome with an art focus, my one wish was to continue with drawing and sculpture – my greatest passions. I didn’t think of a concrete type of work, but I saw myself in the future following my passion until my sculpture professor mentioned the School of the Art of Medal Making. Until that time, I had never considered the applied arts, let alone numismatics, and I did not even know how coins and medals are made.

As I considered applying for admission to this prestigious school, I read about the demanding scholastic program that required many hours of drawing, sculpture and modelling of all kinds. But soon I found myself catapulted into a small world where I could pursue my longstanding passions, and that would soon become my main work.

LG – What are some of the major artistic influences on your work such as perhaps former teachers at the medal making school of the IPZS or certain styles of art?

CP – I have been influenced by many artists, especially my main sculpture teacher Giacomo Micalizzi, who helped inspire my first work creating models of sculptures. Thanks to the school [Of the art of medal making in RomeLG], I was able to continue under the expert guidance and support of the artist Uliana Pernazza, to whom I will always be grateful for sharing her passion for the art of coins, as well as all her experience and dedication, which remains an example for me.

In addition, my work has also been influenced by the amazing artists of the place where I was born and continue to work, Rome. In particular, the works of the great classic, Renaissance artists like Michelangelo and Raffaello.

LG – Please tell me what it was like, especially as an Italian and I assume a Catholic, to design a coin depicting such a major religious icon as the Pieta.

CP – Creating the Vatican City’s copper coin dedicated to Michelangelo’s Pieta has been a really enriching experience both artistically and personally. The sculpture captures the moment when Mary received the body of Jesus from the cross, which is based on one of the most intense parts of the Gospel. Even more than the deep pain, Michelangelo captured the disarming beauty of the scene as one sees in the face of Mary not the expression of suffering but the certainty within her of her son’s coming resurrection. As a Catholic and a mother, I am always grateful when I have the chance to depict Mary, and the experience was an honor without precedent I will remember for a long time.

LG – What are some the other coins you designed for the Vatican?

CP – In the past eight years I have been fortunate to work on a wide range of Vatican issues including at least one per year plus special issues. My favorite ones were without a doubt the 2015 2-euro coin dedicated to the World Families Meeting held in Philadelphia in 2015 and the 2014 50-euro gold coin celebrating the canonization of Pope John Paul II, a great saint of our times with whom I feel very close.

LG – I read that you started working also for San Marino last year. Which coins have you worked on for them?

CP – My work for San Marino is a collaboration begun several years ago in the realm of stamps. The first stamps I designed were in fact for San Marino. In 2019 I was also asked to work on numismatic issues, and it is with great pleasure that I had the honor to creating the 5-euro proof silver coin dedicated to the Games of the Small States of Europe in 2020 [An athletic competition launched by San Marino in 1985 involving athletes from small European countries such as Andorra, Malta and San Marino. –LG], which will soon be available for sale.

LG – Have you done any coins for the Italian Mint and which ones?

CP – Coins issued by the Italian Mint for the Italian state are designed exclusively by artists who work within the mint, never by freelance artists. In my two years of post-graduate studies there I had the opportunity to create for the mint several medals, including one of the official medals for the birth of Rome in 2010 [Celebrated every year of April 20. – LG].

* * *

The author would like to thank Chiara for her participation in this article and for sharing our fascinating insights about art and coins.

Louis Golino
Louis Golino
Louis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing on modern U.S. and world coins. He has been writing a weekly column for CoinWeek since May 2011 called “The Coin Analyst,” which focuses primarily on modern numismatic issues and developments at major world mints. In August 2015 he received the Numismatic Literary Guild’s (NLG) award for Best Website Column for “The Coin Analyst.” He is also a contributor to Coin World, where he wrote a bimonthly feature and weekly blog, and The Numismatist, the American Numismatic Association’s (ANA) monthly publication, where he writes a monthly column on modern world coins. He is also a founding member of the Modern Coin Forum sponsored by Modern Coin Mart. He previously served as a congressional relations specialist and policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress and as a syndicated columnist and news analyst on international politics and national security for a wide variety of publications. He has been writing professionally since the early 1980s when he began writing op-ed articles and news analyses.

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